Triumph of the Mobile Phone Mob

May 27, 1992

Thailand's booming middle class, the "Mobile Phone Mob" that went to the barricades to the sound of beepers, has emerged triumphant after bloody clashes in which the ruling military made the mistake of shooting at its own people. Gen. Suchinda Krapayoon, who earlier had dismissed anti-government demonstrators as "spent boxers," has himself been forced to retire from the ring, his military caste disgraced and repudiated, his ears ringing with demands that he be tried for murder.

What has happened in Thailand has happened, with variations, in many parts of Asia. The "pro-democracy" movement is on the march. When limited to students, as it was in China's Tiananmen Square and in Bangkok in the late Eighties, it can be suppressed temporarily. But when a huge middle class emerges, seeking to turn free market success into political expression, the authoritarianism of yore is in retreat.

This is true of a poor country like the Philippines, where "people power" remains dominant; in prospering South Korea, where military rule is tolerated only because of its new-found liberalism; in backward Burma, where the message from outside still sputters despite harsh suppression of dissidents; even in autocratic Malaysia and Indonesia, where rumblings gather in force.

Thailand's significance for its region can scarcely be overestimated. Even if the ruling generals regroup and reassert power, which is a clear and present danger, the world will not soon forget the sight of guns firing and blood running in the streets of a land noted for its tolerance. The Communist threat is gone. Political struggle is now largely among generals and ex-generals -- those who conducted coups and were overthrown by coups, those who were part of the ruling entourage and those who now lead the opposition.

The generals who would like to perpetuate the past are faced, however, with a wrenching contradiction. While they instinctively oppose the demand for pluralism and participation that set off last week's fatal protests, they share with the middle class a lust for wealth and well-being. Today Bangkok's hotels are virtually empty, its tourist trade (the nation's No. 1 industry) in the doldrums because of General Suchinda's blunders. One person whose pocketbook is adversely affected is Air Chief Marshal Kaset Rojananin, who also happens to be chairman of Thai International Airways.

What these military bigwigs have yet to learn is that there is a link between prosperity and democracy. They feed on one another. When people have money, they will move about, communicate with one another, hear what is happening elsewhere, become more assertive of their political rights. When they are repressed, they may hide their frustration so long as things are going well but over the long run they will explode.

This was Thailand's turn, and the generals predictably made a mess of it. Now democracy, Thai-style, should be given its chance.

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